Frank talk on transportation funding

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While the MBTA’s budget struggles have captured the region’s headlines, there is also an increasing awareness of a statewide transportation funding problem. Unfortunately, the public process around the issue seems headed in a familiar direction — float a whole bunch of ideas, piece together a stop-gap measure, and kick the can down the road.

What’s missing is a willingness to talk frankly with the public. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes frustration from the political class at the public’s unwillingness to embrace new revenues from an increased gas tax or other sources. But what do they expect from a public that has watched the Big Dig debacle unfold over more than a decade?

The first step in talking with the public about new revenues is a frank assessment of how our transportation system is functioning and how MassDOT is doing as a steward of those assets. The building blocks were put in place in 2009, when a major transportation reform law was passed. The law laid out performance measures, but MassDOT only released these (incomplete) results in a report posted on a subpage of their website.

There are plans in the works to put this data up in a more dynamic way, a dashboard that visually presents the key facts. Pioneer Institute has put together a first draft of what a dashboard might look like to give citizens a view of current performance and show that it can be done. Along with our partners at the Northeastern University School of Engineering, we built a simple dashboard that communicates how well our transportation system has been functioning over the past few years. It is an easy-to-understand presentation of how congested our roads are, how dangerous it is to drive, how many people take public transportation, and more.

If and when MassDOT rolls out their own dashboard, the next step is to regularly communicate with the public about their successes and failures. Right now, the state does a good job of communicating on a project-by-project basis and when they need more funds, but there’s little effort to communicate systemwide performance data and what effect current spending is having on that performance.

Transportation leaders need to demonstrate that our money is being used carefully and effectively, then be held accountable for improvements, before asking for more money. Consistent communication with the public is the first step in that process. Let’s not wait another couple of years before we start doing it.

Steve Poftak is the research director at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

Also seen in Boston Business Journal.